Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Best School I Went to

My Dad is going to shoot me for blogging this but I’m going to state that the single best school that I attended was School of Infantry Specialist or SISPEC as it was commonly known (SISPEC has since been rebranded as SCS or Specialist Cadet School). This is the school that dad didn’t have to pay king’s ransom for and it wasn’t the school that gave me the prestige of being a “Graduate from England.” It was the school that prepared me best for life.

It’s not to say that I didn’t value my time at Churcher’s College or Goldsmith’s College (In Arty Circles, the Great Art School of the University of London.) Goldsmith’s was great or should I say, it gave me the great experience of living in one of the greatest cities in human history – “The London Experience.” I also have great affection for Churcher’s College, a place where I have many happy memories and where I made some of my best friends.

While Churcher’s and Goldsmith’s were great for the academic training and prestige value, they didn’t quite expose me to the life that I was to have. While Churcher’s was by no means a major league public school, those of us who attended all came from a similar socio-economic background and we were basically a group of nice kids and it was understood that we would all be going to university. Goldsmith’s was like a bubble where you could hide from the realities of daily life.

SISPEC on the other hand was brutal. We all came from different socio-economic backgrounds and saw life from different sides of the road. My best friends included the Chinese speaking son of a fishmonger, who was raised by a single parent and the son of the plastic bag tycoon. Somehow, we had a find a way of gelling together.

SISPEC was supposed to train us how to “LEAD.” It was about getting guys who didn’t always feel like cooperating (or in some cases, thought fucking you up was a sport) and to add fuel to the fire, you had the superiors who weren’t exactly keen on making your life easier either. Somehow, between all of that, you had to find a way of getting things done.
One of my former officers described SAFTI OCS as the best leadership school in the East. Officers spend nearly a year learning how to lead. In the Singapore system, the NCO’s or “Specialist” as we’re known, are there for our “knowledge” of a particular topic. So, in a sense OCS might be a better leadership school than SISPEC.

However, being an officer is relatively simple in the sense that you’re part of management. Your job is to provide “leadership” and there are plenty of cooperative subordinates to do things for you. I remember reading a manual for NCO’s published by the American army, which tells a wonderful story. It involves a major, a few second lieutenants and a sergeant-major. The major asks the second lieutenants to put up a flag pole and the young officers spend hours trying to figure it out. After watching them struggle, the major offers to show them how to get it done. He turns to the sergeant-major and says, “Sargent-Major, please see that the flag pole is up by sun rise tomorrow.”
This story is the perfectly illustrates the difference between being part of the team that plans things and the team that has to execute things. As an NCO (or Specialist, as Singapore insist on calling them), your job is basically to get the basic unit to execute things. While you have some leadership authority, you are primarily the bridge between the boardroom and the shop floor. An officer has the advantage of a rank that says he’s entitled to lead. There is that distance between you and the men to say that you are the boss.

The NCO doesn’t always have that luxury. You have to be close to the men so that they feel compelled to do what you say but you also need to except orders.

In later life and having worked several industries (PR, advertising, insolvency, food and beverage and retail), I’ve noticed that the key skill is the ability to manage people.

One of the key problems with management is that it’s constantly presented as a top down thing. You are told that you manage when you can get your subordinates to do things. The thing that management schools generally fail to teach you is the need to manage up or “boss management.”

As an NCO in a military unit, you got to be able to command your specific unit but you also have to learn how to manage your bosses and believe me – you have plenty. In professional armies like the USA and UK, an NCO has to manage the men and very often his boss – the young officer, who in many cases is often young enough to be his son. Learning how to tell your boss he’s a total idiot in such a way that he understands and does something about it while still showing the proper deference is a skill. In corporate sector, the easy way out is to avoid telling your boss there’s a failing.  In the military, where you deal with lives in life-ending situations, it’s irresponsible not to acquire the skill.  

I’m not saying that SISPEC taught these skills perfectly but the experience made one aware of the need to acquire such skills.

In my current existence, I find myself learning to manage. I am essentially a bridge between various competing interests like bosses, clients, staff, colleagues, suppliers and so on. I don’t always do it perfectly, but the experience of going through SISPEC (nearly 30-years later) made life easier.
National Service wasn’t something I wanted to do. The job was forced upon me. However, when I look back, I’m grateful to the experience. It was wonderful preparation for later life.